Two years ago, the Frist Center organized a major survey, “The Art of Tennessee,” that did what major shows do: defined its subject. Among its revelations was that, in Tennessee’s early years, the state’s most accomplished artist was John Wood Dodge, a 19th century painter best known for his portrait miniatures—small works in watercolor on ivory that were intended to be carried or worn by an individual. Most of the miniatures in the Frist show came from a major collection assembled by local collectors Raymond and Linda White, who recently gave this collection to Cheekwood; the entire collection is now on view there through the end of the year.
Straddling the fine and decorative arts, miniatures were popular in America between the 1740s and 1860, when photography overtook the form’s primary purposes of aiding acts of memory, honor or affection. Portraits of young people were given in courtship, pictures of older people presented for occasions like wedding anniversaries; some portraits of children were meant to remember those who died young.
The White collection includes over 100 miniatures, the earliest dated around 1780 and the latest from the 20th century, although only a handful come after 1860. With a couple of exceptions, they are portraits of a single subject, men and women of varying ages (but consistently Caucasian) reflecting changes in dress and portraiture style. The collection is comprehensive, representing major practitioners such as John Ramage, Edward Greene Malbone, the Peale family, Thomas Seir Cummings, Charles Fraser and John Wood Dodge. Miniature painting was open to women, and this collection includes pieces by Anna Claypoole Peale, the sisters Eliza and Sarah Goodridge, and by my count eight other women.
The best miniature artists showed great skill in capitalizing on the native properties of ivory. Malbone (whose work Hawthorne mentions in The House of Seven Gables) shows his mastery with an airy and light portrait of Mrs. Benjamin Winslow from 1805. His subject has clear, alabaster skin, wears a white dress and sits in front of a pale-blue background. Working with such light colors, Malbone coaxes the image out of the ivory, and the color tones in combination with the subject’s slight smile convey a sense of pleasant levity.
Numerous pieces have significant historical interest related to their subject or artist. Dodge did a painting of David Peter Lewis, from Huntsville, which Lewis gave to Narcissa Saunders of Nashville in 1840 while courting her. She turned down his marriage proposal, and both remained unmarried their entire lives, but Lewis went on to become governor of Alabama. For a student of Alabama history, this image of a serious young man in dark coat and collar makes the past more imaginable.
In “The Art of Tennessee,” Dodge came across as a superior talent. Placed here among his peers, his work still stands out. His portraits are consistently among the best rendered, and he found in this small format enough room to exercise a strong romantic and sentimental vision, particularly in the pictures of children who died as kids, like Eliza Washington or Felix Grundy. In most miniatures, the background is neutral. Attention falls entirely on the features of the sitter. Dodge fills the background of his memorial portraits of children with glowing pink and orange sunset skies, more full of life than the foreground subject. In addition to the obvious message of resurrection hope, the vibrant visual qualities of the luminous skies suggest a heightened emotional state brought on by the death of the child. The pain of loss intensifies the survivors’ emotional lives, and can put them in an elevated state of sensibility with minds directed toward thoughts of transcendence.
Critic Stanley Cavell has made the case that painting and photography are fundamentally different mediums, arguing that painting moved away from representation not as a response to the new form but through painters’ own exploration of their medium. He concluded that “one could…accordingly say that photography was never in competition with painting.” The painting of portrait miniatures belies that argument, as the daguerreotype and later photographic techniques did displace the portrait miniature. One piece at Cheekwood by John Henry Brown, from 1857, was painted from a daguerreotype; by then, it was only a matter of time before photography took over the field of compact portraiture.
In some respects, this is surprising. As Cavell and many others have pointed out, a photograph and a painting are aesthetically distinct: a painting can be a world unto itself, complete, where a photograph captures a fragment of a scene. Paintings don’t pull in as much data as a photograph, but this gives a painting power to show more than what is visible, and to account for the adjustments that human perception makes in response to a scene. And most obviously, in the 19th century paintings had access to color; a hand-tinted photo simply couldn’t integrate colors like a painting. But if you assume that the portrait miniature largely served the purpose of providing people with a simple emotional connection to those they loved or lost, the displacement seems natural—the photograph does the trick, gets the image down, and does it more efficiently.
In this light, it’s easy to see just how distinct portrait miniatures were from other, more ambitious forms of painting. With one foot in the decorative arts, they tend to be appreciated for the technical quality of their production, their use of materials and their connections to a past era, while we expect fine art to go further and provide some kind of grist for interpretation. The contrast could not be clearer when you consider the Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Church paintings in the Hudson River School show at the Frist, which overlap with the time period of the White miniatures. The very scale of some of these paintings demands that they be taken as something of great moment.
In this context, the predominance of miniature painting in Tennessee seems natural. The Hudson River School arose in the Northeast, catering to patrons who were accumulating vast wealth as the country industrialized. The South was nearly a colonial possession; what wealth was here came from a smaller economy. It seems unlikely that there was the same demand for an extravagance like expansive allegorical landscapes. Art had its place here, but with a more direct purpose. There are analogies in the contemporary art world, where regional disparities of wealth and population density translate into differences in artistic production. When you go into a gallery in Chelsea, you are often bowled over by the obvious cost to mount the work on display there, whether it is a very large painting, a sculpture, an installation. Very few artists in Tennessee can put together the money to produce the capital-intensive spectacles that you see in gallery after gallery in New York.
Perhaps more than a distinction between decorative and fine arts, what you have with miniatures is private art. One anonymous painting in the Cheekwood show, from about 1820, consists of nothing but a single eye, no bigger than a dime, painted presumably to keep the identity of the subject secret between the giver and the recipient. What, then, are we doing when we look at private art? These items were meant to be viewed in their singularity, not with a hundred others in display cases. The paintings were precious to someone, and seeing them in the museum provokes a melancholy similar to rifling through boxes of old photos in a flea market. The questions get personal. What happened to the families of these subjects? What will happen when my belongings are dispersed?
One may wonder how the families of the people in these miniatures could let go of such precious objects, but their abandonment goes to show how functional the paintings were. They served their purpose, reminding the living of people they knew. When the people who knew the people depicted are finally gone, the fact that Edward Malbone painted the image, or the evidence it provides of hairstyles or clothes at one historical moment, becomes more important than the person painted.